People with a deceitful or aggressive personality in a workplace are not likely to retain positions of power in comparison to those who are generous, trustworthy, and generally nice, recent research shows.
The new study which has been published in the 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' tracked disagreeable people from college or graduate school to where they landed in their careers about 14 years later. "I was surprised by the consistency of the findings. No matter the individual or the context, disagreeableness did not give people an advantage in the competition for power - even in more cutthroat, 'dog-eat-dog' organisational cultures," said Berkeley Haas Prof. Cameron Anderson, who co-authored the study with Berkeley Psychology Prof. Oliver P. John, doctoral student Daron L. Sharps, and Assoc. Prof. Christopher J. Soto of Colby College.
The researchers conducted two studies of people who had completed personality assessments as undergraduates or MBA students at three universities. They surveyed the same people more than a decade later, asking about their power and rank in their workplaces, as well as the culture of their organisations. They also asked their co-workers to rate the study participants' rank and workplace behaviour. Across the board, they found those with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits were not more likely to have attained power than those who were generous, trustworthy, and generally nice.
That's not to say that jerks don't reach positions of power. It's just that they didn't get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply didn't help, Anderson said. That's because any power boost they get from being intimidating is offset by their poor interpersonal relationships, the researchers found. In contrast, the researchers found that extroverts were the most likely to have advanced in their organisations, based on their sociability, energy, and assertiveness - backing up prior research.
"The bad news here is that organisations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people. In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organisation," Anderson said.
The age-old question of whether being aggressively Machiavellian helps people get ahead has long interested Anderson, who studies social status. It is a critical question for managers because ample research has shown that jerks in positions of power are abusive, prioritise their own self-interest, create corrupt cultures, and ultimately cause their organisations to fail. They also serve as toxic role models for society at large.
While there is clearly no shortage of jerks in power, there has been little empirical research to settle the question of whether being disagreeable actually helped them get there, or is simply incidental to their success. Anderson and his co-authors set out to create a research design that would clear up the debate. (They pre-registered their analysis for both studies on aspredicted.org.)
What defines a jerk? The participants had all completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI), an assessment based on general consensus among psychologists of the five fundamental personality dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. It was developed by Anderson's co-author John, who directs the Berkeley Personality Lab. In addition, some of the participants also completed a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R).
"Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways," the researchers explained. "...Disagreeable people tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others' concerns or welfare."
In the first study, which involved 457 participants, the researchers found no relationship between power and disagreeableness, no matter whether the person had scored high or low on those traits. That was true regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, industry, or the cultural norms in the organisation.